A step toward recognition

It is a sobering, or at any rate a salutary, thought that a man is, after all , only as recognizable as his Wellington boots. This realization came to me the other night when I was down our road walking the dog, in shoes (me, not the dog), and a woman I'd never seen before suddenly issued from one of the houses with a large Alsatian.

We exchanged the kind of greetings dogwalkers sometimes indulge in and were proceeding in various directions when she suddenly turned round and said: "And you must be the man who walks his dog in the long grass below the houses." I admitted it was possible.

"I see you from my kitchen," she said. "I didn't recognize you at first -- without your Wellington boots."

It is, I suppose, such subtle nuances that distinguish between life in the country and life in the city. If, when I lived down in Yorkshire, I'd worn shoes instead of boots to cross the fields, Ken, the farmer, would probably have wanted to know if I was going to a wedding. "Nay, lad, tha's dressed up, in't tha?" -- I can just hear him imitating broad Yorkshire as only a broad Yorkshireman can.

There the mud season was about as long as the four other seasons put together. A bootless man was an unusual sight. A mere move to the city of Glasgow is not enough to kick the boot-wearing habit. My feet came north with me: so did my Wellies -- naturally.

Boots of course go with long wet grass, and long wet grass goes with walking the dog. Below the houses along our road is a wild area of common land known as the "Cunyon" which makes an impressive little urban stab at walkable "countryside." It's left to its own devices, more or less, and is filled with wildflowers, shrubs, brambles and grass. I'd never before thought of my boots as particularly noticeable. But now, when I stride through the cunyon with the dog, relishing every scented root and stem in all this wonderful, growing green, I wonder who might be admiring them through lace curtains or venetian blinds. . . .

Have my boots and dog and I become part of that woman's outlook, figures in her environment?Who knows? Perhaps we have even modified it slightly.

Academic observers of the urban scene frequently point out the sense of anonymity experienced by people when moving from the country into the city. For some this can act as a gigantic surge of unaccustomed freedom. They can move and act and dress and behave unscrutinized by all-seeing and appraising village eyes. They can avoid encounters. But -- so goes the theory -- this release can be double-edged.

I think so too. We may well escape critical eyes of a narrowing sort, but at the same time we escape approval and particularly warming and pleasant notice. Most of us are a strange mixture of the private and the public, the introvert and the extrovert. Secretly, perhaps, we like to be seen and watched. Even the acutely reticent can feel a small shudder of pleasure when someone has recognized him.

The city is what you make it, of course, like the country: it responds to you; you contain it. You determine your identity in it. The woman who recognized me as the man in Wellington boots that summer night simply increased my conviction that "city anonymity" is a myth, suffered only if unchallenged.

In any event, I'm delighted that my boots had something to do with a challenge. Boots are heroic -- but also human. They make their mark on the earth, but not aggressively. They are an amiable kind of footwear. They flatten but don't churn up pathways. They forge tracks. Boots conquered the moon. And boots are obligatory for a walk with a dog. Dogs have their own ways of adapting to a new environment, of making their importance felt, of staking out territory. But a man on a walk (at least through a sea of summer grass) without boots is but a poor creature. All cities should be full of men in boots , tramping exultantly over their waste places, getting noticed.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.